There’s an unspoken but generally accepted perk in Hollywood that, when a director wins big at the Oscars and is sufficiently accomplished, he’s entitled to a “labor of love” or vanity project with little studio interference and no strings attached. Actor/Director Ben Affleck, coming off a directorial hot streak with films like ‘The Town,’ ‘Gone Baby Gone’ and the Oscar best picture winner ‘Argo,’ cashed in his chips by making a prohibition-era gangster crime-noir thriller set in sunny Tampa, Florida. While ‘Live By Night’ isn't the disaster (except at the box office in an unusually crowded January) some critics are making it out to be, it nonetheless failed to catch on, becoming the latest in a string of recent misfires set during the same period along with ‘Public Enemies,’ ‘Lawless’ and ‘Gangster Squad.’
Based on Dennis Lehane’s novel by the same name, Affleck (who also wrote and directed) plays Joe Coughlin, an Irish Great War vet-turned-small time crook who became a reluctant gangster. From what we can gather, his motivations didn’t arise out of any ambitions to rise to the top of a criminal empire a la’ Tony Montana but out of revenge for the loss of his beloved Emma, with whom he was having an affair behind the back of her patron, the Irish mobster Albert White, who found out and dealt with them in typical heavy handed fashion. So even though Coughlin’s Irish, he signed up with White’s arch enemy, the Italian mafia boss Pescatore, who saw potential and assigned him to take charge of his rum operations in Tampa. As the story unfolds, we see Coughlin build up his rum empire in Tampa and make it a highly lucrative enterprise, strike an alliance with the Cubans through marriage (with Zoe Saldana's Graciela), go to war against the local Ku Klux Klan and develop a soft spot for the daughter of the local police chief played by Elle Fanning (the daughter, not the chief). There’s a lot to cover even for a movie running over two hours, and many critics have pointed out that perhaps the film’s ambition exceeded its limited reach.
While ‘Live By Night’ probably would have worked better as a mini-series, it managed what it could as a movie and I found the film to be alright, all things considered. Affleck gave a quiet and understated performance as the film’s anti-hero, a man who skirts the boundaries of the law but possesses a code of honor, not unlike Tom Hanks' character in ‘Road to Perdition.’ In ‘Live By Night,’ action and Tommy Guns speak louder than words. And the cinematography and sets are quite gorgeous too.